Les Rocher, titan of YK property development, passes away
Les Rocher, one of Yellowknife’s best-known landlords and land owners, passed away late on Thursday evening, his family confirmed. He had just turned 63.
Les owned an extraordinary amount of Yellowknife land and property, ranging from shacks in Old Town’s Woodyard to shopping plazas and office space. As a result, he touched many Yellowknifers’ lives.
He also turned his hand to philanthropy, such as helping the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre to grow inside the city’s former Pentecostal church.
Jacqueline Khavandi, his eldest daughter, said she and her siblings were “very proud” of her father and his legacy.
“He really led us by example. He showed us that with support from those who love us, foresight, and a whole hell of a lot of ambition, we could do just-about anything with our lives,” she said.
“Les has been so important to Yellowknife,” Mayor Rebecca Alty said.
Councillor Niels Konge, another of Yellowknife’s construction leaders, said: “I don’t think there’s any single, one person who fully understands the scope of his contribution.”
The face of the swap shop
Les and his family have been part of Yellowknife’s fabric for decades.
Born in Vancouver on April 21, 1957, family members say he first made money selling fish door-to-door from a wagon as a child.
His real start came working with his parents, Johnny and Mary, at their Yellowknife furniture store. Quality Furniture remains part of the Rocher family today.
“He started with the swap shop,” said Jacqueline. “When he met my mom, he convinced her to invest $40,000 she had saved and they bought some land together.”
Al Hjelmeland submitted this photo of Les Rocher’s image on his second-hand swap shop truck.
The two flipped the land – in other words, buying it then selling it on for a profit – and together formed what their daughter called “a true partnership.”
“Earlier on, Les would flip more than keep,” said Jacqueline. Over time, though, “it became a collection.”
Modular subdivisions in Kam Lake, the Stanton Plaza, developments in Niven, the Engle Business District, downtown buildings – Les became involved in developing virtually every part of the city.
“In younger years it was exciting to learn of his latest project or purchase,” Jacqueline said. “He once owned the old fire hall, which was vacant, and he’d allow us to ride around on our scooters. We could sometimes have a 10-cent candy from his corner store.”
Such was his influence, both as a major owner of land and an institution in his own right, that one Yellowknife mayoral candidate in 2012 said the fate of Old Town was “up to Les really, to say what he wants to do. It’s his land.”
A man who got things done
Al Hjelmeland has worked with Les for more than 30 years.
“We had a terrible marriage together,” Hjelmeland laughed, “but we were also friends. We spoke even when he was ill over the last while, almost daily.
“I’d ask him, ‘How do you feel?’ And he’d reply, ‘How the **** do you think I feel?’
“I’d say, ‘That good?'”
Les Rocher was the man behind hundreds of Yellowknife homes. Pat Kane/Pat Kane Photo
Hjelmeland remembers Les as a “rough, tough guy” who wouldn’t hold back – and an A-type personality who found ways to get things done.
“He would tell you what was wrong with City Hall, or the government – or yourself,” said Hjelmeland. “But then I could also say to him, ‘You kinda screwed that up.’ And we’d laugh.”
Jacqueline spent her twenties working alongside her father, when the days would bring “long, smoke-filled” truck rides around the city.
“That’s where he did his parenting or offered what he could about the world he knew,” she said.
“He explained the importance of forward thinking. He would talk about buying a particular piece of land next to a growing business, because he knew the business owner would need it in 10 years’ time. He would rent it while waiting, then flip it to him.
“It worked. He understood and recognized, better than anyone, the future value that real estate might have to another party.”
The rock behind Yellowknife’s housing
Hundreds of Yellowknife properties exist because Les made them happen, with a particular passion for manufactured homes. “That’s what he knew,” said Hjelmeland.
Mayor Alty said: “I can’t even begin to imagine what our housing situation would be without Les.”
Konge, who came to Yellowknife in 2001, said: “Since I came to town, he has put in more housing – by a multiplier of 10, 20, probably 30 – than any other single developer.
“You can take all the housing developments everyone else has done, and he has still done more.
“Whenever Les talked, I liked to listen. It always seemed he had an inside track on a lot of things. He saw things differently than most people and, because of that, he saw opportunities where others didn’t. In terms of community-building, that is a great gift to have.”
“We called him The Rock,” said Hjelmeland. “He knew what to blast and where to put all the rock to make the best use of it.”
Jacqueline said that was the part her father enjoyed the most: “material management,” working out how to use the blasted rock as he prepared a subdivision.
“He didn’t want to waste a single rock or dollar,” she said.
“He’s the best,” Hjelmeland continued. “They really look up to him in the south because of what he could do with a manufactured home.
“It’s huge. Yellowknife is built on manufactured homes, that’s just the way it is.”
‘Get in, we’re going for a drive’
Despite his exceptional influence in shaping Yellowknife, Les rarely spent time in the public eye.
“He was quite a modest guy and not one to brag or talk much. He was just business,” said Alty. “He wanted to get those houses in, get a development going. He didn’t want any accolades or thanks.
“He’d pick you up in his truck, bring you to the property, and show you what he was talking about so you could really see what it was, so it wasn’t just a bylaw.
“He had such a big heart, too, when it came to helping community groups and the arts community. It’s a tough loss for Yellowknife. He really did so much.”
“You know what it is?” said Hjelmeland. “It’s not even just the knowledge, it’s the vision: taking a piece of ground in Yellowknife and turning it into a neighbourhood. Nobody can do what he did.”
Les had been unwell for some time. Konge remembers being told as much when Les took him for a drive last fall.
“I’m personally going to miss him coming to the end of my cul-de-sac and telling me to get in, we’re going for a drive,” Konge said.
“Yellowknife is made up of characters, and Les definitely was a character. I feel that as we lose our characters, we lose a little bit of Yellowknife.
“There’s not one person that can fill his boots. It leaves a big hole.”
Every so often, Jacqueline asked her father for advice. She said he told her to keep God in her heart, do the right thing, always take care of each other, and: “If you find a good friend, bind them to you with hoops of steel.”
“He never mentioned work or investment,” she said. “His advice was always to treasure those you love, and to care for them and to be a good person, as he was.
“I miss him immensely.”
Les Rocher is survived by his wife Sandra and son Gabriel McDaniel, his children Lindsey Rocher, Jacqueline Khavandi (née Rocher), Bonnie Rocher, Lorna Rocher, and Leslie Rocher, and his mother, Mary.
“He was a huge mama’s boy,” said Jacqueline. “He bought her a red Ford Mustang convertible a few years ago. He worshipped his mother. He asked me to take care of my siblings and his mom.”
With pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings preventing funerals in their usual sense, the family hopes to announce a celebration of life in the future.
Michele Taylor contributed reporting.
Correction: April 27, 2020 – 8:53 MT. Les Rocher’s age was initially given as 64. He was, in fact, 63 at the time of his passing. This report has been updated accordingly.